Friday, September 15, 2006

The Hidden Things (Nitzavim & VaYelech 5766)

The first part of this week’s parashah finishes with the well-known verse:

The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things are for us and our children to eternity to do all the words of this Torah. (Devarim 29:28)

The precise identity of these ‘hidden’ and ‘revealed’ things has perplexed the sources from the earliest times. The Ramban offers a simple reading:

The ‘hidden’ things are the sins that are concealed from those who do them, for example unknown errors. The hidden things are only for God, as we have no sin in them, but the ‘revealed’ things, which are the deliberate sins, are always our responsibility. (Ramban, loc. cit., paraphrased)

There is an additional difficulty, in that the words ‘for us and our children’ appear in the Torah with dots over each letter. This is considered to be related to the meaning of the verse:

Why are there dots over ‘for us and our children’ and the ayin of ‘ad’? To teach that they were not punished for the hidden things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan – the words of Rebbi Yehudah. Rebbi Nechemiah said to him: is one ever punished for the hidden things? Doesn’t it say: to eternity? Rather, just as one is not punished for the hidden things, so they were not punished for the revealed things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan. (Sanhedrin 43b)

This source is perplexing. It appears to read ‘hidden’ and ‘revealed’ as the hidden or revealed sins of others, thus understanding the passage to refer to the sins of others. One of the great themes of the end of Devarim is ‘arvut’ – mutual responsibility between all Jews. This didn’t begin to apply until the unifying force of the Land of Israel bound the Jews together – hence the reference to the crossing of the Jordan. Rashi’s comment on the verse is instructive here:

Isn't a man ignorant of his fellow's secrets?' I will not punish you for the inscrutable, which is the Lord our God's--- He will punish that individual. However, what is exposed is for us and our posterity, to eradicate evil from our midst. If we fail to implement justice against them, then the community will be punished. There are dots over ours and our children's to teach that, even with regard to what is exposed, the community was not punished until they had crossed the Yarden, when they obligated themselves with the oath at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival, and became accountable for one another. (Rashi loc. cit.)

Rashi (which is at least partially based on the above quote from the Talmud) understands that the verse addresses the responsibility of the community for the religious performance of the individual. The verses are taken in their context, for the earlier passage refers to individuals who stray towards idolatry:

Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman or a family or a tribe whose thoughts stray today from [being] with the Lord, our God, to go serve the gods of those nations; lest there is within you a root producing gall and bitter fruit. The Lord will be unwilling to forgive him, because then the Lords’ nostrils will fume and His vengeful fury enflame against that man, and there will cling to him the entire oath-curse written in this book; and the Lord will eliminate his name from beneath the sky. (17 & 19)

The surprising thing about this text (which remains very difficult) is the assumption that at some level we are all accountable for each other and that dire consequences await those who abrogate this responsibility. While there are numerous other explanations of this passage, this one, based on Rashi and the Talmud appears to be the most common.

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